The Sultan of psycho is not afraid

Ann Treneman
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:55

Faye Sultan works with terrifying people and leads an amazing life.

Ann Treneman met her, read her book and has her telephone number. And so does Ben, but he mustn't tell Brenda.

Faye Sultan looks an entirely ordinary person. Black and white jacket, black trousers, fortyish, long hair, American accent, easy laugh, sensible shoes. She is a forensic psychologist and makes the predictable joke when I suggest she sit on the couch. I point to the tape recorder. "Of course I don't mind. I'm a shrink. We get taped all the time!" By the time the tape is turned off any idea that Faye Sultan and the word "ordinary" should ever appear in the same sentence again have been removed. For ever.

For starters she knows many of the sickest murderers in America and these are not passing acquaintances. It may be her job to find out what makes these people - most would say monsters - tick but surely this does not need to extend to such things as giving them her phone number? This becomes even more puzzling when she tells me that having an unlisted number is her one attempt at privacy. What is the point of an unlisted number if the likes of Horace Benjamin Beech, a schizophrenic double murderer whose alternative personality is named Brenda, can ring at any time? Faye Sultan is careful to explain the rules to me: "Ben is allowed to call my house but Brenda is not. I don't want to talk to her. She is really not very nice." No, evidently not. After all she killed two elderly women in North Carolina. Not the kind of person you want to have a chat with.

"You know I've never been in danger because of any of those people," says Faye rather patiently. "The danger does not come from the defendants. It is from the general public." During a controversial trial her office can gets death threats. When she speaks out against the death penalty there are more. She says that this speaks volumes to her: "This says to me that we live in a terribly, terribly, terribly violent culture."

Actually she may have added a few more "terriblys" in there and soon I know why. As a child growing up in New York and Long Island she was beaten regularly and blamed for just about everything by her mother and step-father. She escaped, via the kindness of strangers and teachers, to university at the age of 16. She is not in contact with her mother and is convinced that only the luck of the draw separates her from the defendants she visits in prison. Monsters are made, not born. Evil is not in our genes, it is in our homes. Nor is murder only something that criminals indulge in. The state kills too, though Faye Sultan does her best to stop it doing so.

I ask if people call her a wishy-washy liberal and she laughs. "How about bleeding-heart candy ass? That is the most common phrase. People say to me, how can you make excuses. I say this isn't about excuses, my job is to explain. My job is to present to juries those factors which lead this individual down this path. Besides the defendant I am the most unpopular person in the courtroom. It can be very unpleasant. I get yelled at and screamed at and spit on. By whom? The attorneys. Sometimes I think you'd have to come from a pretty terrible background to think it was an OK way to spend a day."

It occurs to me that she might be right and then she erupts again. "But it is very important that they hear the truth about how this person became this monster. He wasn't hatched. He was cultivated. We don't want to hear about how we did the grooming. Often when I am testifying I am watching jurors cry. They don't want to hear it. I didn't either. But we are building prisons as quickly as we can and at some point we need to figure out how we breed violence."

Faye Sultan wrote a book about this called The Making of a Monster. No one wanted to publish it. Then her co-writer had an idea. Why not put the same ideas into a thriller? And so they did: it is called Over the Line and the heroine is suspiciously like Faye Sultan. It all has the distinct air of a "made for TV" movie. But Faye herself is more interesting than that because she knows more than her fictional heroine with the terrific cheekbones and worrying nightmares will ever know. She has seen a man die in the gas chamber. She has interviewed a "sane" man who had to be chained to the wall so he wouldn't hurt her. She has met Benjamin and Brenda and many many more.

A lot of the time, she says, Benjamin sits with his back to her. "He says things like: I come and I go, I come and I go. If I ask him how he is, he says I don't know. Isn't that sad? He doesn't know." Then one day Ben turned and looked at an umbrella and said: "What a lovely dress that is," and Faye Sultan knew that another personality had entered the room. I look confused and she explains: "The reality is that part of my job is to sit with someone until they are ready to connect - and that can take hundreds of hours - and part of Mr Beech connecting was that he let us meet this woman who had committed all these murders and she apparently thought the umbrella was a very nice dress." See what I mean? Extraordinary.

`Over the Line' by Faye Sultan and Teresa Kennedy is published by Fourth Estate at pounds 9.99.

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